#TWET...Slavery & Racism
By Amy Willis
Incentives matter, sure. But isn’t there a limit to what institutional analysis can (and ought) explain? That’s what lingering in my mind after listening to this week’s EconTalk episode with everybody’s favorite guest, Mike Munger of Duke University. How and why did the attitudes of white Southerners change over time in the pre-Civil War era? This week’s episode is uncomfortable to listen to in many respects, and Munger admits that his research for the paper the episode is based on gave him nightmares. But I think it’s important…Let’s see if you agree.
Munger posits that it’s too facile to look back on American slaveholders and call them evil. As he said himself on twitter, “Slaveowners may have been ‘evil.’ But you likely would have been evil, too. I expect I would have..” Roberts pushes back; sometimes, things are just wrong, he says. Was slavery upheld for so long in the American south because of the incentives facing slaveowners? Or did they really believe in the sort of familial, paternalistic order on which they tended to justify the continuation of slavery? And if so, how were they able to convince themselves of such beliefs? Both Munger and Roberts note that there was opposition to slavery, even in the South. The discussion raises really interesting questions about how ideologies are formed and subsequently maintained. Even though emergent, they may still be repugnant. But is Munger really claiming that the justificatory ideology underpinning slavery was emergent? Or was it initially crafted in response to incentives, then perpetuated as an accepted set of norms? It’s a lot to think about…